It is comforting to know some things have never changed since Islam began. But some argue that religion should be adapted for modern times. How can you find the balance between the two?
We have to expand the way Islam is expressed in the world. Right now we’re institutionally dominated by a very conservative brand of Islam, one that always keeps women in the back, if not segregated completely—a brand of Islam that keeps women from the pulpit, whether it’s to lead prayer or to even give a speech.
There’s hardly a mosque in the world where a woman can’t enter without covering her hair. The Catholic Church went through their theological evolution regarding the little handkerchiefs that women ended up putting over their hair to symbolize this covering. The synagogues have gone through their own evolution to create different denominations of sorts. Churches allow for different types of services.
[Muslims] have to intellectually allow for these differences. I can imagine people cringing at the ideas that I’m suggesting about women being able to stand in the front row, and they’ll throw all sorts of theological arguments against it. But there is a calling inside the community for interpretations of Islam that allow for it.
Is there room for both—mosques where Muslims worship conservatively and mosques that invite interpretation?
I think there is room for both. Traditionalism and conservatism has as much of a right to exist as any other interpretation. What I just oppose is the imposition of an interpretation on everyone. And there’s too much of an oppressive dynamic in our community and in our mosques. I have a problem when an interpretation of any faith is used an excuse for violence or oppression of others. I have a human rights issue with that.
Some Muslims argue that a lot trouble stem from a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. And in the Bible or the Torah there are also verses that can be viewed as intolerant. There are verses that seem to contradict each other. Should we read these verses literally or interpretively?
There are many people who say that the Qur’an is the word of God, and you have to take it literally. I don’t accept that conclusion. I believe that we do have to use these principals of ijtihad (independent interpretation) to practice the faith in a way that is compatible with our modern day society and common sense.
This is ultimately where my conflict with my mosque became clear: What I kept hearing from the pulpit was a literal interpretation that was problematic on many levels, from how they thought we should relate to the West, to Jews and Christians, and to women. It was an expressed a violence against other people. That’s when you just have to say, no, that’s not acceptable.
Do you think faith and religion can be adapted to people, or people have to adapt to their religion says?
I think faith and religion has to adapt. It should be more of people defining the religion than the religion defining the people. It is really laughable the way that folks try to reach for some divine mandate to how they’re supposed to live, completely separate from their own intellect and soul. It’s like we’ve got cue cards from heaven about do this, do that. And we can seek inspiration and guidance from teachings of the past and the sacred text, but at the end of the day we have to seek this: What the Prophet Mohammad has said--a fatwa from our heart.
Ultimately, as human beings, we were granted this incredible right to have free will. With that comes this incredible responsibility to use our free will for good. When I hear people say that their mandate comes from this sacred text that commands them to bully their wife at home or not shake hands with a Jew or a Christian, it just becomes socially irresponsible. Then you are using religion as a cop-out. I asked my dad once, “Are you sorry that you set me off on this path?” And he said absolutely not, because as a scientist he knew that when you question, you sometimes suffer. You tremble under the consequence of your inquiry and suffer greatly sometimes.
You’ve always put yourself out there in your work and now this PBS program. Has it been worth it?
It’s definitely been worth speaking honestly from my heart about the struggles and the challenges. Every time I get a letter from a young woman who is struggling in some far corner of the world, and she feels a little less alone, it’s worth it. I’ve spent far too many moments feeling slain by the loneliness of inquiry of the orthodoxy around us. These kids who are out there challenging the traditions and norms of their community--I don’t want them to feel like they’re alone. After this long journey, I feel I have no contradictions of glaring proportions. It’s really nice to live with authenticity, with transparency.